October 3, 2018

FTV: Alligator Records


    Bruce Iglauer isn’t exactly a household name.  If one isn’t a blues music fan, Alligator Records probably won’t ring many bells either.  During the past couple of years, there has been a profound transition in the music business and Alligator Records is, by Iglauer’s estimation, lucky to still be hanging around at all, let alone flourishing.  The last time I emailed our old friend Al Jacquez from Measured Chaos, he was frustrated because many of the venues that he had previously performed at are no longer around. Many of the labels in the blues genre are also going dark.  Blind Pig, a label that originated in Ann Arbor, Michigan and later moved to San Francisco (and a source of a lot of great music we spin on WOAS-FM) has been sold but seems to be inactive at this time. Delta Groove’s owner has died, leaving question marks about that label’s future.  There are also questions concerning the direction of another tried and true label, Delmark, as that imprint was recently acquired by two jazz musicians. Iglauer had earlier worked at Delmark and it was his springboard to starting Alligator Records. Perhaps it is his past history with Delmark that gives a lot of credence to Iglauer’s simple assessment of the situation:  “Alligator is one of the last men standing in the blues.”

    Iglauer’s musical journey began in the 1960s when the Cincinnati native was doing his best to join the folk music revival with his acoustic guitar and harmonica rack in hand (or around his neck).  As a freshman at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, he took a sojourn to stay with his sister in Chicago in January of 1966. His sister was attending the University of Chicago and it was the UofC’s Folk Festival that drew him to Chi-town.  As a ‘new folkie’, he knew little about the traditional folk music that the 60’s revival was tapping, nor did he realize that the Chicago Folk Fest was all about trad folk. When this middle class new folkie college student heard Mississippi Fred McDowell perform, it changed his musical direction and his life.  According to Iglauer, “Fred was a Southern black man with little formal education who had grown up in poverty. But somehow the raw honesty of his music, the completely unvarnished quality, the songs that clearly came from his real life, all spoke to me. It made all the music I had been listening to up until that time begin to seem fake and phony.”  Back in Appleton, he ordered a Fred McDowell album from the small Arhoolie label. He soon discovered the electric blues of the Paul Butterfield Band that introduced him to the Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Little Walter. He attended the Mariposa Folk Festival in Canada to hear Johnny Young, Walter Horton, and Sunnyland Slim. The Canadian trip put a copy of the Canadian folk music magazine Hoot in his hands.  One article that caught his attention was the pivot point that turned Iglauer toward his future.  He told, “(One writer said something like) If you ever to to Chicago and want to hear blues in the clubs on the South and West sides, go to the Jazz Record Mart at 7 W. Grand and Bob Koester, the owner of Delmark Records, may take you out to hear some real Chicago Blues” –  Koester operated Delmark Records out of his record store basement.

    Iglauer took the advice to heart and began making weekly trips to Chicago and Bob Koester became his mentor, eventually inspiring Bruce to book Howlin’ Wolf to play a concert back at his University.  While the show was poorly attended, he learned enough about promotion to give it another go with a new Delmark recording artist named Luther Allison. The show sold out and was a smashing success: “With a lot of promotion (including using my radio show on the college station), the concert sold out.  Luther’s performance was absolutely thrilling. He played for three hours , and then we invited all the people in who hadn’t been able to fit in and were still waiting, and he played for another hour, ending up with only three unbroken strings.” Soon after Iglauer found out he would not be drafted into the army (“I had a lucky birth date (in the draft lottery)” was Iglauer’s take on it), he headed to Chicago.  He took the poster from the sold out Luther Allison concert to show Bob Koester and ended up wrangling a $30 week part time job in the Delmark shipping department.

    While he was working for Koester, he and a small group of blues fanatics decided to try their hand at producing an American blues magazine.  It was a crude affair operating out of Iglauer’s one room apartment, but Living Blues was designed “…to chronicle the current blues scene, primarily in the black community.  We didn’t want Living Blues to be a magazine about old records and historical research, or about white blues-rockers.”  They eventually sold the rights to their start up to the University of Mississippi where it is still published it today, 48 years later.  Iglauer was soon able to parlay his Delmark job into a full time position commanding a salary of $70 per week, but he had bigger plans. He met blues man Hound Dog Taylor and tried to get Koester to record him for the Delmark label.  Koester wasn’t interested but he did encourage Iglauer when Bruce decided he needed to record him and to do that he needed to start a record label. The first 1000 unit pressing of Taylor’s record (half of which went to radio stations for airplay) began selling well enough for him to press more.  Iglauer told BluesBlast, “Of course, I had to collect money from my distributors to be able to do so (manufacture more copies)!  For at least the first six or seven years of Alligator, each record had to pay for the next one.” In 1975, Hound Dog Taylor passed away and Alligator was still surviving on the sales of his first three albums.  None of the other artists on the label were breaking big yet but Koko Taylor and Son Seals LPs would eventually become sellers. Seattle’s Albert Collins became the first non-Chicago artist on the roster. He was at a low point in his career, didn’t have a band, and wanted $1000 up front to record with them.  A deal was struck, Alligator helped put together a band and the resultant album Ice Pickin’ (supported by Collins’ tour with the newly formed Icebreakers) turned into one of the label’s best sellers.

    Iglauer’s dream to record the great music he was hearing in the clubs was problematic because there were more artists out there than he could afford to get on vinyl.  He hit upon an ingenious solution: compile several tracks from multiple artists into a three LP set that would be titled Living Chicago Blues.  A lot of bands got exposure from Iglauer’s project and Alligator Records picked up a solid selling record to help the company grow.  Slowly but surely, Alligator moved forward from the days when they had to sell a certain number of albums in order to press more. It is always exciting for me to read about upcoming Alligator artists releasing new records because I know that we will be getting advanced copies to preview and share.  Alligator has been one of WOAS-FM’s primary suppliers of high quality blues music and we are forever appreciate being on their mail list. When I recently downloaded the label’s discography from 1971 to 2018, it spanned twelve pages! We have so many great Alligator records on file, we will be featuring one or two each Monday evening as part of Pete and Zenith’s Blues.

    The Alligator name came from Iglauer’s habit of clicking rhythms with his teeth as he listens to music.  This didn’t seem odd to me because I do it all the time. I wrote most of our marching band drum cadence doing the same thing when I was in an English class during my junior in high school.  The toothy Alligator that adorns the company logo is hard to miss. Clicking his teeth in time to music isn’t Iglauer’s only talent. He has a keen ear for music and is not afraid to record unknown artists.  The number of new Alligator releases we have found in our inbox are too numerous to recount here, but we will be spinning many of our favorites including Elvin Bishop, Shemekia Copeland, Tinsley Ellis, Marsh Ball, Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya, Johnny Winter, Selwyn Birchwood, The Holmes Brothers, Toronzo Canon, Moreland & Arbuckle and many, many more.  Alligator artists have been nominated for 41 Grammy Awards and have won 3, one of the most recent being the late Buckwheat Zydeco’s Lay Your Burden Down.  We were especially thrilled that we were able to spin this album in the months before Buckwheat Zydeco appeared at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival in 2008.

    In the introduction, we mentioned that Delmark Records has been purchased by a couple of jazz musicians.  Since the outline of this article was roughed out, BluesBlast magazine has run a feature article on the new owners;  Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari. Both are composers and guitarists who play together in the band Volcano Radar.  Barilari is originally from Montevideo, Uruguay and currently teaches Latin / American music and jazz history at the University of Illinois – Chicago.  Miller, who acts as President and CEO of Delmark and also teaches the Class of Sound at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. According to Barilari, they wanted to kick their involvement in music to the next level and after conducting some research in the field, “We finally knew that Bob Koester would be willing to sell Delmark and we started a very careful and long process with him.” The label sounds like it will be in good hands as Miller enthusiastically adds, “We are very happy to be new owners and happy to be here . . . and we are here to re invigorate Delamark Records.”  As for how they will carry on the Delmark legacy, Miller continues saying, “We don’t look for talent per se. We think about how Bob Koester would have thought about it in terms of creative and interesting performance and people that don’t sound like other people. We are open to listening to artists and open to also bringing artists together to do new collaborations and new recordings.” If this sounds somewhat familiar, it would seem that these are some of the same lessons that Bruce Iglauer learned working for Koester at Delmark before he spun off to form Alligator.

    I will let Bruce Iglauer have the last word here with a quote taken from the liner notes that came with the 45th Anniversary Anthology that came out in 2016:  “Forty-five years later, Alligator Records, now with a catalog of over 300 albums, continues to be guided by the same philosophy that led to that first recording – the belief that direct, unvarnished, straight-from-the-soul blues and blues-rooted music, the music we call “Genuine Houserockin’ Music” speaks to some primal, necessary place in people’s consciousness.  We believe that our music, if delivered by charismatic, soul-stirring artists, and if publicised, promoted, and marketed with unwavering energy, will find a worldwide audience, stand the test of time, and keep the label moving forward for years to come.”

To this, let me add a hearty, “AMEN Brother Bruce”.  We are already looking forward to the 50th Anniversary of Alligator Records in 2021

Top Piece Video:  Alligator’s first artist, Hound Dog Taylor performing Shake Your Money Maker